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Monday, April 18, 2011

Denominational Differences and Dealing with Heresy the Biblical Way

Earlier today, I got up, switched my computer on, as I always do, and within a few minutes I was checking my news page on Yahoo, Facebook, and so forth.  There was more church buzz than usual today.  Apparently a famous minister has published a new book that many are calling heretical, and after reading explanations of the content, as well as snippets of other books from this minister, and so on, well, I think I would have to agree.

But I'm not talking about that book, or the minister, today.  I want to talk about the underlying issues, because as far as I know, this particular debate will also pass away, but the issues are eternal.  What is heresy?  What should we do about it?  Should we get upset by it?  This, and not the particulars, is what most people need to know, so they know how to react the next time, and the next, and the next...

So let's take a quick look at debate and heresy, denominational versus core teachings, and how the Bible tells us to deal with these two kinds of differences when they arise.

Heresy.  What is it? is not written by Biblical scholars, so I'm going with their fairly unbiased and uninvolved definition of heresy:
    1. a religious belief opposed to the orthodox doctrines of a church; esp., such a belief specifically denounced by the church
    2. the rejection of a belief that is a part of church dogma
  1. any opinion (in philosophy, politics, etc.) opposed to official or established views or doctrines
  2. the holding of any such belief or opinion
 The first definition, and its sub-parts, focuses on the Christian church, whereas the last two are more secular in their application.  Any way around it, I don't see any extreme form of name calling.  The word is just a statement of fact or condition.

I also see a little bit of leeway in this definition, which I take issue with, since by this definition, someone who accepts the dogma of one church denomination can be seen as a heretic by another denomination for those same teachings.  This isn't biblically supported; however, there does seem to be some biblical outline of what is heresy, and it is similar to this definition.

A Church Position on Heresy

In the case of someone being labeled a heretic today, it seems better, from a biblical or church perspective, to say that there must be an explicit rejection of core beliefs that are generally held across denominational lines.  These beliefs are considered basics of Christianity, often called fundamentals.  They were labeled that way, because without them, all the other teachings in the Bible, both small and great, will collapse.  In other words, anyone choosing to reject these things is following a religion that is basically different from Christianity.

Outside of these fundamentals are denominational beliefs, such as whether women should be preachers or teachers in the church.  These are not pointless arguments, contrary to to popular belief.  I believe one must have a position on these issues in order to live--it's just impossible not to.

Frequently these denominational doctrines affect how the fundamentals are accepted, like the early church debate over eating ceremonially unclean foods, which had been sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8: 4-13).  How we interpret key Scriptures affects our faith.  Some of us see the need to be stricter with ourselves, while others feel that they have the freedom in Christ to rise above certain practices of this world.  Those who rejected meat sacrificed to idols were rejecting the practice because they were afraid of publicly honoring a god they didn't recognize as a god (or afraid they would return to believing that falsehood); meanwhile, those who ate the meat believed that God made the meat, despite whoever wanted to take credit for it, and that eating was not a sin.  Who was right?

This is something that has to be worked out on an individual basis, with close analysis of Scripture to solidify in our minds what our position is.  In the situation Paul wrote about, it seems both parties were right, in that they both honored God as the One and Only--a core or fundamental belief.  They were just conveying this belief in different ways.   Paul didn't call either a heretic for this reason, and he told them to honor each other by treating each other with respect when they were together.  The important thing was to please God, not themselves, in what they did.

Ultimately it comes down to this:  An individual should choose a denomination because that person believes in honoring God before all else, believes that the denominational doctrines honor God, and feels assured that these teachings do not contradict fundamental biblical teachings, and are good practices to follow.  Such people are not heretics, because at their core, they are trying to honor God with their obedience, and with their minds, and with their bodies.  They aren't joining a club, or trying to start a fight to harm others.

That explains denominational disputes, but it doesn't explain the label of heresy when used in the church, since clearly people on both sides of the denominational debate were still treated as part of the church.

Debating Heresy

Now, there are some denominational doctrines which actually contradict the intent and basic teachings of Scripture, which puts followers outside the basic outlines of Christianity, and into a whole other religion.  These fall under the definition of heretical doctrines, and those who teach them are defined as heretics.

Paul dealt with such people in his day, and they still come to the forefront regularly, even now.  They are people who don't believe in God's power to judge sin, who believe that God can be worshiped alongside many other deities, who believe that Jesus is not the only way to be saved, and so on.

These beliefs contradict basic teachings, repeated over and over throughout the entire Bible, so there is not any further room for debate.  A person cannot say they aren't in there, because their presence is so heavily felt; and a person cannot say they could be interpreted several ways, since they are repeated so often, and so plainly, each confirming the last.  They come down to a question--do you agree, or do you disagree?

A person who disagrees is heretical, that is, that person believes what is considered contrary to basic dogma.  That person is not included in the group, but rather, belongs to another.

To call someone a heretic, really, is to call that person to debate.  It's not a concept to be tossed around when someone makes us mad.  We have to investigate what that person believes, and whether it is truly heretical (putting that person into another religion), and not just denominational (a fracture group within a religion).  When everything has been talked out, we have to make a decision.

Jesus told us not to continue calling unbelievers, believers, when they have chosen to reject what is right (that is, rejected core teachings of the Bible, as Paul's position seems to support).  In fact, He told us to debate with them, not once, but on several occasions, to make sure that they know what they have chosen, and all the consequences of it.  Then He tells us to treat them as we "would a pagan or a tax collector" (Matthew 18: 15-17).  This treatment means we should honor them, even when they dishonor us; we should bless them when they curse us; and we should be kind to them when they have been cruel (Luke 6: 27-35).  We should not, however, believe that they are like us, or accept and join them in their unbelief (Psalm 1:1-2).  In other words, we should love them, but not pander to their sin or make excuses for them; and when it comes down to a choice between them and God, we should leave them behind.

In summary, I think we should define heresy carefully, debate everything thoroughly until we've gotten to the root (core) of the disagreement, and make judgements governing our own behavior, accordingly.  Core doctrines are sensitive issues, and sometimes denominational disagreements can affect our faith where these core doctrines are concerned, and emotions can run high.  All the more reason to be careful in how we handle it, and how we treat each other.  There will be disputes, both on matters of heresy and matters of denominational interpretation, but we who know God have been given the pattern for how we should handle both of them.  In the case of denominational disputes, we should drop the matter quickly and try to respect each other in our differences, but in the case of heresy, a change in our perception and treatment of a person is warranted.

In both cases, souls hang in the balance, so in all things, we should handle with care, and honor God.  Until next time, this is me, reminding you to stay savvy, and be prepared, both in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4: 1-5).